Ends of the Earth
This book of the New Testament is commonly referred to as simply “Acts”, but it’s traditional title is “the acts of the Apostles” (not ax that you use to chop wood; not acts like acts or scenes in a play, but acts like actions of the apostles);
and that’s somewhat fitting because it certainly recounts the actions of the Apostles.
But, it’s also a bit of a misnomer. (vs 2 titles of Genesis which I suggested were very fitting, appropriate titles);
the title of Acts , somewhat of a misnomer. It’s somewhat fitting, not totally false, but a bit misleading, because the emphasis of not only this beginning section, but of the whole book, is that the prime actor is not the Apostles themselves – they play a necessary role, but they are not the focus; they are not the source of, and they don’t provide the power behind, the acts that we see. And the title “Acts of the Apostles” fails to do justice to the main actor of the book of Acts – fails to take into account the divine power and plan by which the apostles actions are made possible.
I think a better title would be: “the acts of the ascended Jesus, by the power of his Holy Spirit, through the Apostles.”
We could still just call it “Acts” for short; but this reminds us that there was and is a human role in the mission of the church; but that that role is energized empowered by divine power and plan: that Jesus, in the gospels, only began to act.
Acts – written by Luke the Physician, is volume 2 of a 2-volume work; the first part being the Gospel According to Luke.
And, that connection is made explicit here in the introduction, where just as in Luke’s gospel it takes up the address to his reader, a man named Theophilus – we don’t know anything about him or who he is, except from what we learn – that he was a believer or inquirer about Christianity who needed more information and certainty regarding the ministry and teaching of Jesus.
And, so, Luke the author refers back to his gospel in v1 – where he mentions his former book, in which he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.
Began; the implication, now that his current book, is what Jesus is continuing to do and to teach – by his Spirit, through his followers.
You see, all that we read about in the gospels – the birth of Christ, the baptism of Christ, the ministry – teaching, miracles, and other actions of Christ, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ – none of that gets us to the end of the story.
In fact, all of that – is in one sense only the beginning of the story.
“The Gospel-story is incomplete without the Church-story” because it is one and the same story – the story of God’s redemption –
in the gospels we see Jesus accomplishing that redemption (and he is finished with accomplishing that redemption – atonement has been purchased; his sacrifice is once-for-all; his people’s redemption has been secured;
But in Acts we see that redemption being applied to the hearts and lives of those who come to faith in Christ to bring salvation and transformation – and that work, has only begun.
The difference between the gospels and acts isn’t that Jesus is present doing and teaching in one and that Jesus is not present in the other; no: It’s the difference between his ministry on earth, and his ministry from heaven.
And, so his work continues still – from heaven: he right now and forever more reigns over his church as King over his church – ascended to the right hand of God and ruling with power;
his rule may be more or less evident; but it is never more or less real or certain; and that gives comfort to us as we struggle through this life.
he is not absent – but he is still present – not physically, still truly present through his Spirit – still at work through the spirit to empower his church to be his witnesses, to be agents in the work of his Mission to reach all nations.
And, that’s exactly what we see in his commission to the Apostles in v8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And, this commission is given in response to the Apostles question in v6: “Then they gathered around him and asked him, Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
And, this question reveals some of the disciples lingering misunderstandings, and Jesus’ response is correcting these misunderstandings.
Calvin: “There are as many errors in this question as there are words” – a bit of an overstatement but nevertheless – they’re not totally wrong in every way, but you can see the gentle redirection that Jeuss provides:
Lord, are You at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?
And in Jesus’ response, you see him correcting them: It’s not going to be at this time; it’s not going to be just to Israel; and it’s not going to be him doing it alone.
1st misunderstanding: at this time:
They think that the Kingdom is going to come in it’s fullness now.
Now that Jesus has been raised from the dead, now is the time for him to establish his final definitive reign, for him to sit on his throne in glory and conquer his enemies and bring all things in subjection to him; and they’re part right, but not right about the timing.
“They desire triumph before battle.”
and Jesus corrects them, by reminding them of two things – first, it’s not for them to know when the end will come; and, that until that end, the kingdom will not come immediately; but rather will come with much struggle, with much suffering, in fact, will not come until they all hearing him then had given their lives for him.
See, the kingdom will come in it’s fullness – hinted at in v11 when the angles tell them that Jesus will come back in the same way he went up into heaven – his second coming, when he will come as judge to bring the kingdom in its full finality.
And until then, between the ascension of Christ and the return of Christ, would come the giving of the Spirit for the mission of the church.
And, so, we’re reminded of the promise of John the baptist that Jesus would baptize with the holy Spirit, which didn’t happen while Jesus was ministering on earth but as he promised, would only happen after he ascended into heaven.
And, so the ascension not only teaches them to hope for Christ’s return and to be assured that it would happen, at the same time it teaches them to not wait around for his for his physical presence, but to look to the Spirit.
If you remember, Jesus warned the disciples that he would leave them, but that he wouldn’t leave them alone as orphans but would send the Spirit to them – to be his presence with them any- and every-where, for all time, all the way to the end of the age – no matter how long it took until his return, he would be with them in a way that he couldn’t be with them if he was still physically present, but in a way that he could only be with them through the Spirit – by being spiritually present with them.
Sometimes, we may be tempted to think that it would be better if Christ was physically present on earth; but, Jesus being physically present was only in one place at one time; and by leaving to send his spirit he can be with us in a far greater way than he could otherwise.
And, this becomes all the more obvious as you look at the transformation that happens in the disciples after the pouring out of the spirit at pentecost – they are different people than they were in the gospels – powerfully transformed – and because Christ ascended into heaven, we can be assured that that same spirit which transformed those first disciples lives in us and can transform us today.
The ascension of Christ and the sending of the Spirit is sort of like the tag-team of the trinity. (WWF – when one done beating up on the other, they tag their partner who’s ready to come beat up on him some more).
Only the incarnate son of God could accomplish the redemption of God’s people, because only the divine-human could live the righteous life God required and bear the curse of sin for God’s people on the cross. But, now, though he continues to intercede at the right hand of God; now, the Spirit is the one to step into the ring.
And, so, after his ascension, he promised to pour out his spirit – that, just as in the beginning of his ministry he was anointed with the Spirit to preach the good gospel; so now the apostles would be anointed with the spirit to resume the ministry of Christ
the Spirit would be poured out on them so that christ would be with all his disciples until the end of the age – no matter how long it would take – to enable them to endure the struggle, to fight the good fight, to engage in the mission for the long haul.
Because, until Jesus return – they are not to just stand around looking up at the sky (v11) but they are to get busy with being Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth!
Jesus says it’s for them to know the times or dates set by the Father’s authority;
Unfortunately, Christians haven’t always listened to this correction – and many have tried to calculate the exact time of Jesus’ return;
they do exactly what Jesus says they shouldn’t do: sit around trying to figure out when the end will come, they should get out there and use the time they have to share the gospel so that more people will be ready to meet Jesus when either their end comes, or when the end comes, whenever that may be.
They’re not to spend their time looking upwards; rather, they’re to be looking outwards! They’re not supposed to be looking gazing up into the sky but to be looking to the ends of the earth!
Stott paraphrase: “The angels tell them: You have seen him go. You will see him come. But between that going and coming there must another coming and going: the Spirit will come; and you must go into the world, for Christ.”
The time between Christ’s ascension and return is the time for mission. Mission is temporary; there will be no more opportunity for it after Christ’s return and final judgment.
Now is the time – the only time. Because the establishment of the kingdom isn’t immediate, but delayed, then during that delay is the time for the Church to be witnesses for Christ.
All around them, is a lost and dying world that needs to hear the message of the good news of the kingdom of God.
As the book of Acts itself suggests by it’s unfinished ending – that this mission would not only not be immediate, but it would be ongoing – the ends of the earth are never reached in Acts – the mission goal is never complete – it remains open – for us.
And, so, don’t be discouraged, when it takes longer than you think; don’t give up, when the progress isn’t as quick as you think it ought to be; but remember, that the kingdom doesn’t come immediately; there is no triumph until after the battle is fought.
And the accomplishing of that mission, for those first apostles and for us, is going to cost and demand more, and take them further, than they ever dreamed.
to the ends of the earth.
2nd Misunderstanding: to Israel
their q in v6: Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?
his response in v8: “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The gospel would bring restoration to Israel, but it wouldn’t stop there.
The prophets looked forward to a time of restoration of Israel – but not in a political, geographical sense, but a restoration of true Israel – spiritual Israel – which would be not the Israel of physical descent but the Israel of faith in Christ.
And, though the gospel would start in Jerusalem and go first to the Jews, it wouldn’t remain there but it would move outward to Judea & Samaria and outward to the ends of the earth – to bring in the gentiles who have faith in Christ.
This wouldn’t be a political or geographical kingdom with it’s spatial and temporal limits; As Jesus himself said, it’s not a kingdom of this world. It’s sphere transcends earthly geo-political boundaries and limitations. It’s not expanded by force or by sword or by coercion, by proclaiming the message of Christ.
And, so, it doesn’t reach it’s limit – but it expands outward. More radically outward than the apostles initially seemed to really get – and in fact, it took quite a lot for them to get.
that the Kingdom would no longer have the limitations of just Israel, but it would extend outward to the ends of the earth.
We tend to think that the church has reached it’s outer limit; that it has filled itself to the extend of it’s mission; and so it rests comfortably within that; but this mission statement reminds us that the mission of the church keeps pressing outward; keeps extending outward; and never reaches it’s limit until Jesus comes back again.
This introduction to the book of Acts introduces two main themes that we see throughout the book; and, these two main themes also serve as two main points of departure and discontinuity with the Old Covenant which God had with his people in the Old Testament; and as such two distinctive elements of the New Covenant: The outpouring of the Holy Spirit; and the Mission of the Church to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth.
And those things go together – the outpouring of the Spirit enables the church to fulfill its mission to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.
The nations were a concern in the OC, but it was mainly a future concern, and missions for the most part was not the way in which the nations were reached. God’s people in the old covenant did not have the call of missions to go out; rather, they lived separate from the nations, distinct; and as such, were a light of attraction which brought people from the outside in;
And, that’s still somewhat true of the how the church works – that the church remains separate only in the sense of distinct and holy, light of the world and salt of the earth – such that it has an attractive power to draw people to the truth of the gospel – but not separate in terms of staying put localized in one place among one type of person – but taking those holy lives and going out to the ends of the earth – living among those they are trying to reach – “living in the world but not of the world”.
Radical Shift: Whereas in the Old Testament, the nations were brought in; now in the new covenant church, believers go out.
This mission of the church to go to the nations, is a fulfillment of what God promised to Abraham all the way back in Genesis; that God would establish a people for himself, by whom all nations would be blessed.
And, that is fulfilled in the mission of the church bringing the gospel to all nations all throughout the ends of the earth.
that God’s people don’t remain put – content – complacent – ingrown – self-focused; they don’t only reach out to the people just like them; but they constantly, regularly, repeatedly, perseveringly go out to their neighbors and beyond – that they reach out to all nations
This is why believers in Christ no longer had to convert to Judaism – this was an issue the early church had to work out – that while Jewish converts could continue to retain certain aspects of jewish culture/custom; Gentile converts did not have to embrace them – because the gospel was equally for Gentile as it was for Jew; there was no first-class/second-class in the family of God:
The gospel was/is for all nations, not 1 nation; All ethnicities, not 1 ethnicity; all places not 1 place; all peoples not 1 person; all languages not 1 language; all colors not 1 color;
Christ came to establish an international family; Christ calls us to be witnesses to all people – not just ‘our kind of people’
You can be patriotic and be faithful to the gospel at the same time. But you can’t be nationalistic – at least in the sense that we see it in its extreme forms today; and be faithful to the gospel. You can’t be racist, and be faithful to the gospel. You can’t exclude or look down upon any type of person, without contradicting the gospel – and in fact, without discrediting the gospel. Because in Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
This was something that was hard for those first Christians to learn – in fact they first spread out of Jerusalem not by choice by by being forced to flee through persecution. And, it took Peter quite a lot of convincing to learn that the gospel was for Gentiles too.
and, you know what? this is a hard lesson for us. Because we all too easily think the gospel is only for people like us; and so we count people out or consider them beyond reach;
but the gospel is for all people.
No one is beyond the reach of the gospel of Jesus Christ; no one is beyond the scope of the mission of the church. So don’t count anyone out.
And, so, Christ’s call today is for us to go to the ends of the earth – to all people.
3rd Misunderstanding: are you?
Q: Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?
Again, partially right. Because only God can build his kingdom. Only God can change hearts. Only God can judge and renew the world.
But, Jesus says in his response: you will receive power from the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses.
But, they aren’t going to be mere spectators in what God is doing. They, are going to be 1st-hand participants.
though he would do it, he would do it through them – empowering them to be witnesses with his spirit.
The Spirit is the power source; they are the instruments.
To be a witness, all you need is to the Spirit of God in you, and to have witnessed Christ for yourself –
to have experienced his salvation – that qualifies you better than anything else to tell of his salvation.
To witness about Christ, you need to witness Christ for yourself; “Salvation is given to be shared”; and we can be witnesses of Christ, because we ourselves have witnessed Christ.
Witnesses: in OT, Israel was called God’s witness, but there was a problem. They were called to witness to God’s truth, but they themselves were blind and deaf!
Now, imagine, you are on trial for a crime you did not commit. And, your lawyer brings in eye-witnesses to come to your defense, and the primary eye-witness, is blind and deaf.
That would be an extraordinarily ineffective witness, because they couldn’t see or hear anything that would testify to the truth; and Israel was likened to that because they had become ineffective witnesses to God’s truth.
Israel had been exiled because they had become ineffective witnesses of God’s truth and glory and goodness. They were no longer pointing the nations to the truth, but they themselves had gone astray after the false gods of the nations.
But, Jesus came as the true witness of God – and now Jesus would heal the blindness of his people and empower them to be witnesses – he would give them sight to see the truth and ears to hear the truth – he would put his spirit in them to give them the power they need to be effective witnesses.
And if Jesus has healed your blindness, then you can be a light to the blind.
Jesus will build his church and establish his kingdom, but he wouldn’t do it without them. Without us. Without you.
God chooses to, insists upon, using his people to be his witnesses who will bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.
We will be the channels thought which Jesus by his Spirit is at work to change hearts and lives.
A real and living faith in Christ, is a faith that witnesses to the truth of Christ – that tells others what it has seen and heard in him.
The mission of the church is not about building buildings or establishing programs; it isn’t about a political agenda or worldly power; it is about being witnesses, living transformed lives to reach the lives of others who need to experience the transforming power of the gospel.
It is about reaching people. Being the community of Jesus, to reach a community for Jesus – to reach the world for Jesus.
If the Holy Spirit is in you – then what do you have to fear? If Jesus is coming back to bring you to glory, then what do you have to lose?